The UAE’s actions in Yemen will have the same effect their policies have had in the rest of the Arab world: spreading disorder.
On August 10, 2019, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), took control of Aden in Southern Yemen, leaving many questions hanging over the role played by Abu Dhabi in Yemen and beyond.
It is a matter of fact that the UAE established a coalition with Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthi rebels in March 2015 for the declared purpose of bringing back the legitimate government to power. The Houthis had overthrown Yemen’s government and seized control of the capital, Sanaa.
However, by seizing Aden, the interim capital, the STC is guilty of committing the same sin that the Houthis did at the outset. They overthrew the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, initiating a de facto secession, striking a heavy blow to the unity of Yemen, and compromising not just its territorial integrity, but also its sovereignty and political independence.
Irrespective of whether southern Yemenis may hold some valid political grievances, staging a coup and further plunging the county into the dark abyss of violence is neither legal nor acceptable. The STC has withdrawn from some of the critical posts it captured, but the UAE-sponsored putsch holds many essential lessons.
An act of epic treachery
The first takeaway is that the UAE’s reputation has been – once again – struck a severe blow. The fact that the legitimate Yemeni government relied for its rescue on ”Operation Decisive Storm”, in which the UAE has played a central role, only to end up betrayed by the would-be saviour, is an act of epic treachery.
A year ago, President Hadi tried to warn the international community that UAE was plotting a coup in south Yemen, but to no avail. Abu Dhabi tried to stage some theatrics, such as announcing its withdrawal from Yemen to absolve itself from responsibility. While their moves should have fooled no one, they did, however, now we can see the result of their actions.
The problem with reputation is that it is global and cannot be compartmentalised, as Thomas Schelling argued in his seminal work from 1966. Consequently, state actors in the MENA region are taking note of Abu Dhabi’s double-game, especially the part that consists of deceiving its allies while currying favours with its supposed enemies, including terrorist groups in Yemen.
A long time in the making
From the onset, the UAE pursued a policy of establishing a parallel state, weakening the Hadi government bit by bit. It started with the establishment of a network of military camps and militia-run bases, over which the Yemeni government had no control. Added to the mix are the egregious violations of human rights, including assassination campaigns, the use of secret prisons, and systemic enforced disappearances and torture, which have been labelled as war crimes by human rights organisations. Such abuses do not win hearts and minds in the best of times. On the contrary, they have alienated significant sectors of the population and stained the UAE’s public image, not just in Yemen, but internationally as well.
Stemming from the first point is that Abu Dhabi might think it has now the upper hand over southern Yemen through the STC. The long-term goal of Abu Dhabi has been to split Yemen and create a pliant southern state in the form of a South Yemen Republic, which would ensure the UAE’s interests are preserved. The reality is that the STC does not represent the entire south. Before 1967, there were about 18 sultanates, emirates and chieftains in control of large parts of south Yemen. Currently, there are other secessionist and regionalist movements in Al Mahra, Hadramaout, and other provinces, which are not represented by the STC. One can safely argue that the UAE’s designs are no more than a chimaera that will come tumbling down, sooner rather than later.
The biggest loser
Thirdly, the events in Aden demonstrate that Riyadh is on its way to become the biggest loser in Yemen. With no clear strategy, the Saudi military campaign has been nothing short of a disaster. Not only have the Saudis become associated with what the UN calls the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world, but they are also losing the war. The Houthis have held their ground while capturing numerous border positions within Saudi Arabia, and unleashing consecutive waves of drone and missile attacks deep inside Saudi territory.
To add insult to injury, the legitimate Yemeni government—and Riyadh’s protege—was recently expelled from strategic positions in south Yemen. Some face-saving negotiations and other bogus redeployments could still take place, but the reality is that the Saudis have effectively lost Aden.
Is chaos the end game?
The fourth takeaway is that the UAE has no constructive project to offer the region. When one considers the UAE’s positions in Yemen, Libya and Somalia—which mostly consist of overtly undermining UN-recognised governments while supporting warlords and other secessionist movements—Abu Dhabi’s larger regional designs become even more apparent. It seems that the UAE’s end game is to engender chaos and push fragile countries to fragment into pieces on behalf of larger international forces. Splitting existing Arab countries has been an idea nurtured by the neo-conservatives and other quarters since 2001.
All in all, the UAE has been a dagger inserted in the legitimate government’s back all along. The premise, upon which the ”Operation Decisive Storm” was initiated, has become mostly redundant by now. The UAE’s experiment in Yemen is a microcosm of a much broader scheme; one that seeks to create disorder in the region, and impairs all the values of politics, the rule of law, human rights, religion, culture, and ethics. The complex geopolitics and configuration of Yemen mean that this is not going to be the end of the story. In fact, it’s just the beginning.